Feminists challenge Moocs with Docc

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

August 19, 2013

At first glance, “Feminism and Technology” sounds like another massive open online open course (Mooc). The course will involve video components, and will be available online to anyone, with no charge. There are paths to credit, and it is fine for students to take the course without seeking credit. An international student body is expected.

But don’t look for this course in any Mooc catalogue. “Feminism and Technology” is trying to take a few Mooc elements, but then to change them in ways consistent with feminist pedagogy to create a distributed open collaborative course or Docc (pronounced “dock”).

The Docc aims to challenge Mooc thinking about the role of the instructor, about the role of money, about hierarchy, about the value of “massive”, and many other things. The first Docc will be offered for credit at 16 colleges this coming semester – including Yale University; Pennsylvania State University; Goldsmiths, University of London; and Flinders University in Australia – as well in a more Mooc-style approach in which videos and materials are available online for anyone.

“We’re not saying bad, bad Mooc, but we’re asking how else we might innovate,” says Anne Balsamo, co-facilitator of the Docc and dean of the School of Media Studies at the New School.

“A Docc is different from a Mooc in that it doesn’t deliver a centralized singular syllabus to all the participants. Rather it organizes around a central topic,” Balsamo says. “It recognises that, based on deep feminist pedagogical commitments, expertise is distributed throughout all the participants in a learning activity,” and does not just reside with one or two individuals.

So each week, a video presentation – typically a discussion with one, two or three thinkers about feminism and technology – will set a theme for the week. The first week’s video will feature Balsamo in a discussion with Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science whose 1991 book Feminism Confronts Technology led many feminist thinkers to focus more on technology issues. That video is designed to provide a historic overview. Subsequent weeks will feature discussions about more focused topics – feminism, technology and labour one week; feminism, technology and sexuality another, and so forth.

At participating colleges, professors will base their own courses on each weekly theme, sharing course materials and assignments, but customising them for their own students. The courses will vary, as some are undergraduate and some are graduate, and the institutions vary widely by mission and geography. The class sizes will be between 15 and 30 students each, decidedly non-massive. “There is another pedagogical commitment here,” Balsamo says. “Who you learn with is as important as what you learn. Learning is a relationship, not just something that can be measured by outcomes or formal metrics.”

The courses at participating colleges will be offered for credit. Balsamo will meet with her students twice a week for 90 minutes a class, and they will have readings and assignments based on the theme of the week, and will be formally graded.

Other instructors will have their own assignments and grading systems. Balsamo hopes that those who are not enrolled at one of the participating colleges may use the various syllabuses that will be posted to add to their experience beyond the videos – but she is also happy for them to just watch the videos.

With this approach, there may be common works and common lessons, but there is no sense of a single best way to learn the subject, Balsamo says.

Another common element in the courses will be participation in “Storming Wikipedia”, in which students will be given lists of women who have played key roles in science and technology, and will study where they are represented (or ignored) in Wikipedia, and draft entries or entry additions to increase the representation of women in discussions of technology.

By using the faculty positions and institutions of participating instructors, Balsamo says, there has been no need to raise large sums of money or seek out corporate sponsors. To pay for the costs of video production, the organisers received $10,000 (£6,389) grants from the Pembroke Center at Brown University and from the New School.

The question organisers asked, she says, was “what if we put aside the most hand-wringing parts of the Mooc discussion – revenue and massive”. By thinking in this way, the organisers have decided not to worry about revenue streams or losing touch with students as individuals, she said. Yet they will be producing video content that will be available to anyone and that could, over time, reach large numbers of students. And they believe this approach could be used for other courses as well.

Alexandra Juhasz, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College who is the other co-facilitator of the Docc, says via e-mail that “our DOCC is built to value situated experience and emphasis, and to share authority and responsibility rather than the Mooc’s top-down, one size fits all, sometimes elitist approach. Attention to discrete learners, teachers, and institutions is valued over simple numbers of participants. While these structures mirror my own feminist values and approaches, I imagine that most educators will be intrigued by this more democratic and responsive model for technology enhanced learning.”

Among the forms of Mooc hype that Balsamo said she hoped the Docc would combat is the idea that massive online courses allow some “best” professor to interact with students everywhere, so that all can learn from the superstar. It is not that there aren’t very talented professors out there, she says, but the superstar emphasis is wrong (“Is there really a ‘best’?” she asks) and doesn’t encourage group learning.

Balsamo adds: “The idea of the one best talking head, the best expert in the world, that couldn’t be more patriarchal. That displays a hubris that is unthinkable from a feminist perspective.”

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